The Kern County Law Enforcement Agency attempted to put pressure on the Board of Supervisors during negotiations for a new contract Tuesday by staging a rally at the board meeting, during which many sheriffs deputies and family members complained of low pay and retention rates within the Sheriff’s Office.
Emotions were high. Some who spoke during public comment cried, while others shouted. Near the end of the meeting, the vast majority of the deputies and their supporters staged a walkout during a statement by county leadership about the negotiations.
“We are concerned about the level and quality of public safety services being delivered to the communities of Kern County,” KLEA President Tim Caughron said during the meeting. “Due to lack of maintaining the compensation levels of deputy sheriff’s, we have become the lowest paid agency of comparable size in the San Joaquin Valley.”
Wearing coordinated blue shirts, and telling stories of diminishing deputy ranks, slow response times and poor staff morale, the union tried to win support from the supervisors in an effort to increase their salaries and force the county to hire more deputies to fill gaps in the department.
Many KLEA members and their spouses spoke of the emotional toll the sheriff’s department takes on its employees.
Debbie Weiss, whose husband works as a K9 deputy, broke into tears during her comments to the supervisors.
“My children did not have their dad there at their graduations. My husband wasn’t there for my mother’s funeral. He’s missed holidays. He’s missed so many family functions,” she said. “There just aren’t enough deputies out there to cover (the entire county).”
The KLEA and the county will meet Monday to try to resume contract negotiations. The union has been operating without a contract since the beginning of the year. Three weeks ago, 95 percent of the KLEA membership rejected a deal agreed upon by both the union’s leadership and county negotiators.
That deal provided 2.5 percent pay raises across the board for staff, but cut a portion of overtime payments, which Caughron said would have resulted in an overall decrease in pay for deputies, a claim disputed by the county.
The deal offered to the KLEA union was different than the original compensation package the county negotiation team first proposed to the heads of the KLEA when negotiations began in March.
Devin Brown, chief human resources officer for the county, said that union leaders rejected an offer that would have increased the starting salary for deputies by 10 percent, and also included retention bonuses for employees who stuck around for more than eight years.
Union leaders eventually negotiated the 2.5 percent across the board increase that was rejected by the vast majority of union members.
The extent to which negotiations had soured between KLEA and county leadership became clear when nearly every member of the KLEA rally who attended the meeting walked out of the supervisor’s chambers during a statement by County Administrative Officer Ryan Alsop as he attempted to explain the initial contract offer the county had made to union leadership.
“We, I think, provided a proposal that was something that we could build on,” Alsop said. “I think it had some good things in it, particularly for some of the people who have stuck around and been loyal.”
One member of the rally yelled “stop talking and take action,” during Alsop’s statements, which received a round of applause before the KLEA rally members exited the room.
The contract negotiations come at the same time as a the community considers whether or not to approve a 1 percent sales tax increase on November’s ballot.
Sheriff Donny Youngblood originally brought the proposal for the tax increase to the supervisors, saying he worried that if the county did not act, and a ballot measure for a 1 cent sales tax increase in the City of Bakersfield passed, scores of deputies would leave the county for the Bakersfield Police Department, which offers higher salaries to officers.
The county sales tax, which would only apply to sales in unincorporated county areas, is projected to raise $35 million annually, which would go into the county’s general fund.
If the supervisors split up the additional general fund revenue as they currently do, the county’s public safety’s departments would experience a windfall of $20 million per year, which could be used for raises for sheriff’s deputies.
But there is no guarantee that Kern County voters will approve the sales tax increase in November, and until a deal can be reached between the county and the union, deputies will be operating under the conditions of last year’s contract.
Retired sheriff’s deputy Daures Stephens was tired of the back and forth between KLEA and the county.
“This is a leadership issue,” he said. “If we’re going to have some of the lowest paid deputies in California, then the supervisors need to be the lowest paid.”